For the Christian believer, authentic transformation is the process of being shaped into the likeness of Christ, who is Himself the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). We often think of this transformation having its fulfillment at the end of our lives, or even at the end of time, when we will stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Indeed, this is the promise laid before us. But this transformation is not something that takes place in the twinkling of an eye. Rather, it is a long and arduous process, requiring a genuine encounter with God, a change in our modes of thinking, and an active response to the grace and calling of God.
Few people in Christian history have been more zealous in pursuing God and the transformation that the encounter with God brings than the Desert Fathers (and Mothers). These are those hardy souls who went out into the wilderness of Egypt in the third and fourth centuries to find their salvation. In doing so, they pioneered in the development of monasticism and in the understanding of the life of the spirit. In this brief article we will look at some of the insights of the desert fathers concerning spiritual transformation, seen through the prism of the experience of the prophet Isaiah.
One of the most dramatic descriptions of the mystical encounter with God is recorded in the scriptural book of Isaiah (Isaiah 6). The prophet is granted a vision of God in all His glory, seated on His throne, surrounded by the seraphim with the cry of “Holy, Holy, Holy” filling the temple. Isaiah’s eyes were opened to the full reality of the heavenly kingdom. This type of experience is often the result of years of preparation on the part of the seeker, and in its fullness may be rare. But it is always by grace.
One of the Orthodox Christian mystics, Simeon the New Theologian, who had a vision of God when he was a young man just beginning his spiritual journey, noted that he had spent the rest of his life trying to become worthy of what he had already received. God came to him by grace at the beginning of his effort, not as the end result of his ascetic effort. This was to show the primacy of grace in coming to God. Simeon’s grateful response was to enter into prayer, fasting, and service, purifying himself, seeking to make himself worthy to receive the beatific vision whose foretaste he had already received. The effort did not make God be present. He was present whenever and however He chose to be. But Simeon’s ascetic discipline was valuable as a response of thanksgiving to God, and as a means of perfecting the repentance of his heart.
Much more common are those moments of contemplation, reflection, and prayer in which the believer becomes still enough to feel the presence of God. Every encounter with God is purely a result of grace. Spiritual disciplines such as fasting, prayer, and almsgiving may open a person to the presence of God, but God cannot be forced to be present. He is not like a cosmic vending machine, dispensing blessings, including the blessing of His presence, at our whim. He is a Person who relates to us as persons, according to the grace He gives to each of us.
Authentic transformation begins in communion with God; therefore, it begins in the mystery of prayer. God may be known in a vision, in the whirlwind, or in the still, small voice heard in the heart. He may be found in worship, in the contemplation of His creation, with a host of others, or alone in the anchorite’s cell. But He must be found for authentic transformation to begin.
The response of the believer to the encounter with God is pivotal. Many Christians seek an experience with God that is filled with wonder at the awesome majesty of God, one that fills the emotions and touches the soul. And this is indeed wonderful. Sometimes the experience itself becomes the goal, or even the measure of spiritual accomplishment: we are spiritual if we have experienced certain things. We even talk of spirituality, the interpretation of the Scriptures, or heavenly things, as though the discussion of them is the reality. Words, even the words of God found in the scriptures, can only point as symbols to something beyond themselves. Jesus alluded to this when he said, “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39–40). Christ Himself, the Word of God, is Reality. This reality cuts into the deepest recesses of the heart. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (Hebrews 4:12,13).
The story is told in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers of an anchorite who came a great distance to see Abba Poemen. After greeting each other, the visiting anchorite began to speak of the scriptures, “of spiritual and heavenly things.”The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 167. Abba Poemen turned his face from him and refused to respond. The visitor was deeply grieved and believed that he had made his journey for naught. When a friend asked Poemen why he had not answered, Poemen said, “He is great and speaks of heavenly things, and I am lowly and speak of earthly things. If he had spoken of the passions of the soul, I should have replied, but he speaks to me of spiritual things, and I know nothing about that.”The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 2.
The visitor was filled with compunction and returned to Abba Poemen and asked, “What should I do, Abba, for the passions of the soul master me?”The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 55. This time Abba Poemen answered and instructed his visitor to his great edification. It is not enough to speak of heavenly things; an authentic encounter with God must lead to the transformation of the heart.
Isaiah’s response to his vision is instructive: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5). Seeing the absolute holiness and grandeur of God led Isaiah to feel keenly his sinfulness. In a word, he repented. Repentance is crucial for transformation. Without it, no change or development can take place. The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which signifies a change of mind (nous). Repentance is more than simply a sense of remorse for one’s misdeeds; it is a recognition that something fundamental must change in our nature. It is a reorientation of heart from self-centered action toward God and his holiness. To repent is to recognize one’s sinfulness and limitation, to yield one’s heart and soul to God, and to cast oneself upon the mercy of the Holy One.
According to the Fathers of the church, this repentance is not a momentary, one-time event. It is continual, to be renewed in every moment of life. The holiness of God is infinite. The gap between the glory of the Creator and the weakness of the creature is beyond comprehension.
Therefore, our repentance must be continual and complete. Too often we attempt to justify ourselves by comparing ourselves to others. “At least I’m not as bad as Hitler,”one might say, “or as my coworker, or as my friend, or as those self-righteous hypocrites down the street.”The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 197. When we truly see God, no matter what we have done rightly, or what we have accomplished, we know that we fall short of the glory of God. Those seeking authentic transformation must cease excusing their sin and recognize themselves, as St. Paul did, as “chief among sinners.” St. Anthony the Great said, “This is the great work of a man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God, and to expect temptation to his last breath.”
Even those who seem to be righteous are in need of repentance. The story is told of Abba Dioscorus, who was overheard weeping in his cell by one of his disciples. The disciple asked him, “Why are you weeping?”
The old man answered, “I am weeping over my sins.”
“You do not have any sins, Father,” the disciple said.
The old man replied,“Truly, my child, if I were allowed to see my sins, three or four men would not be enough to weep for them.”The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 58.
The temptation, though, would be to lose heart, to feel one’s sin so keenly that one would despair of ever being saved. But God in His great mercy is not willing that any should perish. Another of the Desert Fathers, Abba Pambo, said, “If you have a heart, you can be saved.”The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 94.
Again the experience of Isaiah points the way. After his expression of sinfulness, “then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said, . . . Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven” (Isaiah 6:6–7). The angelic minister of God takes of the fire of the altar and touches the “unclean lips” of the prophet. The lips are a symbol of the heart of the believer. Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). If our lips are unclean, it is because our heart is full of sin. “Those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matthew 15:18–19).
For Epiphanius of Cyprus, this reference to the unclean lips shows the specific sin and need of those who seek to be godly. “The righteous sin through their mouths, but the ungodly sin through their whole bodies. This is why David sings: ‘Set, O Lord, a watch before my mouth and keep the door of my lips.’ (Psalm. 141:3). And again, “I will take heed to my ways that I do not sin with my tongue.”The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 184. The grace of God touches the lips and the heart of the repentant sinner. That which is weak and stained is strengthened, purified, and made whole. God is able to forgive the penitent heart. The story is told of a woman who early in her life had been a benefactor of the monks of the desert. After her wealth was exhausted, she came under the influence of evil men and resorted to prostitution to live. The monks heard of her sinful life, and Abba John the Dwarf went to see her. Coming into her presence, he asked, “What have you got against Jesus that you behave like this?” And he began to weep in her presence. Asked why he was weeping, he explained, “I see Satan playing in your face, how should I not weep?” She asked if it was possible for her to repent. Replying, “Yes,” he then led her willingly away from her home into the desert. Coming to a remote place near nightfall, he directed her to sleep in a spot where he had fashioned a sand pillow and made the sign of the cross. He went a bit farther on, said his prayers, and slept. During the night he awakened and saw a shining path reaching from heaven to her, and the angels of God bearing away her soul. He went to her, and found her dead. Falling at her feet in prayer, he heard, “One single hour of repentance has brought her more than the penitence of many who persevere without showing such fervor in repentance.”
There is also a sacramental element shown in Isaiah’s experience. The altar is the heavenly one on which in a great mystery the Lord Jesus would offer Himself for the life of the world. His glorified body and blood are given through the sacrament to those who come to the altar with repentance. Through the lips the healing “medicine of immortality” (as St. Ignatius of Antioch calls the Eucharist) is given.
True repentance is shown also by action according to the will of God. The first level of this is simply not to repeat one’s sinful deed. “A brother questioned Abba Poemen, saying, . . .‘What does it mean to repent of a fault?’ The old man said, . . . Not to commit it again in the future. This is the reason the righteous were called blameless, for they gave up their faults and became righteous.’”The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 6.
But there is one further element to this process. Authentic transformation will fit a person to fulfill the calling to which he has been called by God. Isaiah, having been forgiven and healed, hears the voice of God: “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” He responds, “Here am I! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8). Responding to the love of God, and to vision of His glory, Isaiah is ready to act. He is transformed not to remain in heaven, unattached to the world, but to fulfill God’s purpose in it. Interestingly, the mission that Isaiah is given is one of speech, to proclaim the word of God with his newly clean lips. God’s mercy to Isaiah fit exactly His plan for him.
One does not have to enter the life of a monk to be saved or to fulfill the calling of God. St. Anthony the Great was the greatest of the fathers of the desert. Yet, “It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.” What is essential is the worship of God and care for one’s neighbor. God is love, and in the expression of love toward others, God is present. When asked what is the greatest of the commandments, Jesus affirmed that they are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).
Still, the experience of the Desert Fathers points to the transformation that can take place when one’s energies are focused completely on communion with God, and reminds us how far we really have yet to go on our journey to “be like Him.”
“Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, . . . ‘Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then the old man stood up and stretched out his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.’”The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 103.
The goal of our life is to become like Christ, to be partakers of the divine nature, to fulfill the image and likeness of God that is within us. We can resist God with sin of all kinds, serious and small; or we can be those of faith who diligently seek Him. We can set ourselves to burn with the flame of his divinity.
Our God is a “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29), who burns away everything in us that does not reflect His glory. This is the meaning of repentance, of changing the focus of our mind and heart, and of participating in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, of “purifying [ourselves] as He is pure” (John 3:3). The fire of the love of God in us will then be as the candle in the darkness, a light shining before men, helping us to fulfill the calling to which He has called us. Fire begets fire. And when the process of transformation is complete, “we shall be like Him”. . . glowing with the divine light as on the Mount of Transfiguration; burning without being consumed, as the bush before which Moses stood in awe; sharing by grace in what He is by nature. . . . “for we shall see Him as He is.”